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Controversial reggae singer's Ybor appearance irks gay community

TAMPA — Of all the places embattled Jamaican reggae artist Buju Banton could have landed, Mark Bias is surprised he will be playing Friday at the Cuban Club.

The venue, after all, is in Ybor City, where the GaYBOR District Coalition has grown into a powerful political and economic force that includes more than 100 businesses within the entertainment district.

And Banton is under fire from national gay-rights advocates for violent, homophobic lyrics. The song Boom Bye Bye includes references to Uzis and lines about killing gay men. Several of his concerts have been canceled in places such as Chicago, Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

That the Cuban Club accepted Banton is especially surprising to gays, considering the venue is a member of the GaYBOR coalition.

"To come down here is a double slap in our face," said Bias, a coalition co-founder who sent 26,000 e-mails asking its members to call the Cuban Club in protest. Pride Tampa Bay and Equality Florida echoed the sentiment.

Locally, Jannus Landing in St. Petersburg and the Ritz theater in Ybor City pulled the plug on Banton before the dance hall artist's promoter approached uninformed officials at the Cuban Club, who now regret their decision.

"I'm not a follower of Mr. Banton, but his promoter contacted the club at the events center and we booked it and now we're kind of surprised by all the negative feedback we're getting from the gay community," said Jose Berenguer, president of the Cuban Club's board of directors. "The problem is that a contract has been signed, and we're not in position to go to court if a promoter decides to sue."

Berenguer said he thinks the concerns are overblown. Banton wrote the song in 1988 as a teenager and has held concerts without any issues, including some at Jannus Landing.

In a statement earlier this month, Banton said, "I do not condone violence against anyone, including gays, and I have spent my career rallying against violence and injustice through music."

Critics, however, say he still performs and profits from Boom Bye Bye, which they call a gay-bashing anthem.

"The thing that worries me the most is that's going to be the Friday night before Halloween and they're going to be in costume and we don't need them to go crazy on us," Bias said of concertgoers. "It could create an unsafe situation for us."

Naquay Johnson, a Tampa reggae artist promoter, said people shouldn't get up in arms over Banton's outdated lyrics, which are a snapshot of deep-rooted homophobia in Jamaican and Caribbean culture that is only now beginning to change.

"That's just the way the culture is. To the culture, that's just not acceptable," Johnson said of homosexuality. "Respectively, it's a very popular song of his."

Berenguer doesn't expect trouble at the Cuban Club, given that Banton's other shows have gone on without problems. He asked the GaYBOR coalition for understanding this one and only time.

"We're just hoping the gay community understands," he said. "We're not trying to disrespect them in any way. We signed this contract, and we have to honor it. Will he come back? No."

Times staff writer Nicole Hutchison contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

Controversial reggae singer's Ybor appearance irks gay community 10/29/09 [Last modified: Friday, October 30, 2009 12:20am]
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